Even one burger a day can increase your risk of cancer

A simple lamb chop, quarter- pound burger, or plate of roast beef each day could increase the risk of cancer, scientists said yesterday. The Government warned that meat-eaters should consider cutting down. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, investigates the background to the latest controversia l advice on diet.
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Ministers triggered a storm of protest yesterday by issuing new scientific advice that most eaters of red and processed meat should cut consumption to reduce the risk of cancer. Those with the biggest appetites, eating 140g a day - equivalent to a medium steak or a couple of quarter- pound beefburgers - were told to cut down and even those eating at or above the current average of 90g a day - equivalent to three slices of roast beef - were advised to consider a reduction.

Organisations representing the meat industry, reeling from the BSE and E coli scares, reacted with disbelief. The Food and Drink Federation said the advice was "totally unjustified" and the Meat and Livestock Commission accused ministers of frightening people unnecessarily. The recommendations, which also include advice to eat more fruit, vegetables and fibre, were issued unexpectedly after the report on which they were based was held up by disagreements over its content.

The report, by a working party of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy (Coma), has been in preparation for over two years. An earlier draft targeted only the heaviest meat- eaters - about one in six of the population - who eat over 140g a day.

It is based on evidence from 1,000 research papers indicating a link between red and processed meat and at least half a dozen different cancers. The strongest link is with bowel cancer but there is also evidence of links with cancers of the breast, lung, oesophagus, mouth and lining of the womb. After protests by some members of Coma who said they had not seen the report, Sir Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, convened a meeting of the full committee last Wednesday. When the committee saw it, changes were demanded to target average meat-eaters consuming 90g or more a day. The debate was over what constituted a high intake and since evidence showed an increasing risk of cancer with rising consumption, the full committee decided to extend the advice to cut down beyond the biggest eaters.

The changes meant the full report could not be published yesterday and will be reprinted. But ministers decided to issue the recommendations to coincide with a report from the World Cancer Research Fund, also published yesterday, calling for similar dietary changes to cut cancer. That report said 100,000 cases of cancer in the UK could be prevented each year, 60 per cent of the total, by changes in diet.

Frank Dobson, health secretary, defended his decision to delay the Coma report. "Coma is there to give independent advice on food safety. It is vital any report they issue should have been considered by all the committee." He denied reports of a clash with Jack Cunningham, Minister for Agriculture, who will have to face farmers and food producers, and said the Government was determined to "change the culture" over food safety. Michael Hill, spokesman for the Food and Drink Federation and chairman of the European Cancer Prevention Organisation, said the recommendations were "totally unjustified". Americans and Australians ate 60-70 per cent more red meat than the British, skewing worldwide research evidence. Within the context of the British diet there was no link with bowel cancer, because of the protective effect of other elements in the diet. "If you maintain a healthy body weight and eat plenty of fruit, vegetables and cereals, how you get the rest of your calories should be up to you." The Meat and Livestock Commission said red-meat consumption in Greece was higher than in the UK but the incidence of colon cancer was half. "The difference is that the Greeks eat almost two and a half times as much fruit and vegetables as we do."